On the Fortieth Anniversary of the Murder of Vincent Chin: What Is Anti-Asian Violence?

Colleen Lye

Recently, a Korean American friend of mine was walking in the San Francisco Mission District when she was called the c word (the racial not gender slur). She clocked that the man who said it wasn’t one of the regular unhoused persons she was used to seeing in the neighborhood. She ignored him. Just as she passed him, something hard smacked her on the back of her head. She stumbled forward but managed to dart across traffic to the other side of the street, half running at this point for a couple of blocks as he kept tracking her from the other side until eventually losing interest. More upsetting to her than the unexpected blow was that throughout the whole thing no one came to her assistance or said anything, though there were plenty of people around when it happened. Having lived in New York and San Francisco all her life, she was well familiar with the masks of detachment people wore while moving through an unpredictable environment, one that threatened to get more dangerous the more you acknowledged it. With all the trainings in the careful avoidance of offensive language, something that took off even more after the George Floyd uprisings, there was an increasing disconnect between the world inside the office and the world outside. The recent COVID-19 hate-crimes bill announced a government resolve to bring more of the culture of the inside to the outside. (Not that she entirely agreed with the criminalization of hate as a response to rising anti-Asian violence or even that hate necessarily got at the fundamental social roots of racism. But thank God for Biden.) Was it not just a little odd, she thought, that people, at least some of whom must have gone through one or more of these trainings, were not jolted by the racial slur? Later she thought: it’s more likely that people had in fact been alerted and made the risk assessment that getting involved would make things worse. Or maybe it was just the opposite: they’d made the observation, in the end correct, that she wasn’t in any real physical jeopardy and that no intervention was needed. Or, perhaps it was that the whole episode just made everyone feel more sad than anything else. It was another version of the sadness one resigned oneself to every day passing by dozens of unhoused persons, some completely unhinged. The more she thought about it, her indignation faded into shame.

She and I have had our political disagreements over the years—she’s a liberal corporate lawyer who takes an individual rights-based approach to injury, I’m an Asian-American-literature professor drawn to historical materialist analysis—but I could relate to my friend’s disquiet and self-doubt. In the past year, I’ve been on the receiving end of more racial aggression than in the previous twenty-five years living in Berkeley. I’ve never been punched or had something thrown at my head. But there’s definitely a level of intensity to the racial commentary my sheer bodily presence on the street seems to elicit that feels volatile. Between that and just reading the news, I’ve become less absent-minded when walking to and from campus, more vigilant about scanning the sidewalk ahead of me and calculating the potential for any sudden moves. Last March I was coming out of the Cheeseboard, a bread and cheese shop so popular there’s always a line to get in. The store is worker owned and operated, the kind of place that puts up a poster of a Muslim woman in hijab to illustrate that “EVERYONE is welcome here,” the opposite of a business that would readily call for the removal of “loiterers” and “vagrants.” The result is a strip of sidewalk densely populated with a combination of foodies and panhandlers. I was thrown off balance one day when a tall, probably unhoused man shouted, very angrily, “China put my family into a meat grinder,” just as I was exiting the store. Since there were no other Asians in the vicinity, I deduced he was talking to me or about me. As far as China-bashing narratives go, this particular one was just vivid and weird enough to stop me in my tracks, drawing out the sociologist in me. I looked around to others for confirmation that I’d heard right. But no one would meet my gaze. Nothing was going on here, their faces said. Later, I thought: this is similar to what my friend experienced. You’re racially accosted in full public view; the public doesn’t react or seem to know how to react. It leaves you with a feeling of estrangement twice over. First, you’re called an alien and the label is harder to shake off because it’s coming from a member of the oppressed. And second, when the studied neutrality of the well-mannered around you implies suspicious agreement or, more minimally, another concession to the atmosphere of a mounting US-China Cold War that’s making it plausible, for example, to prosecute scientists for committing small administrative errors. You know it’s overreading. Still, you’re left with a lonely feeling that when push comes to shove, you’re on your own and maybe always have been.

But you can’t really talk about it. It’s not like you’re Vilma Kari.[1] To couch the experience in terms of feelings seems like an indulgence, possibly a wholesale category error and misapplication of the discourse of microaggression solicited by corporate consultants and university administrators. In workplaces and educational environments, there’s space for intersectionality, time for appreciating multiple differences, feeding the hope that there’s room for all sorts—room on the inside, ultimately, for everyone. But when it’s a matter of an antagonistic relation between the socially disposable and the nationally alienable out there on the street, that’s class contradiction in action. It’s all the more horrifying that, in this season of anti-Asianism, women and the elderly are the prime targets because of a shared perceived physical vulnerability; but the pattern of selection is not the sign of their (usually) male attackers’ “cowardice” but often the product of their own extreme marginality. When the attacks are by mentally ill, transient Black men, the attacks are particularly hard to talk about; they don’t fit with the narratives of racial violence that command cheap political remedies.

Thus, it makes sense that so far the main contribution of #StopAAPIHate has simply been to count: for now, the cold numbers of mounting hate incidents since 2020 must speak for themselves (11,467 between March 2020 and March 2022).[2] In no small way, the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act—one of whose provisions is the federal collection of hate crimes data that for the first time in history is aimed specifically at protecting Asian Americans—is a victory for forty years of pan-ethnic community organizing. The murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, followed by the light sentencing of his killers and the ultimate juridical finding that he had been illegally deprived of life but not his civil rights, rallied Asian immigrant communities to the cause of making anti-Asian violence visible. In 1989 Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987, dir. Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Though it didn’t win, in 1990 Congress passed the first-ever legislation requiring the DOJ to collect and publish data on crimes motivated by “hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.” Thereafter followed the passage of more hate crime laws in a decade characterized by a trend toward harsher sentencing, in sync with the general redistribution of public funds away from social welfare toward policing and prisons.

Which is to say, that, as much as it is a capstone of past grassroots activism, the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act represents a mixed bag from the perspective of present day Asian American Left organizing. Centering resource allocation to law enforcement agencies, the legislation affirms the impulse to turn a very real issue of safety into a reactionary ideological wedge against broader progressive momentum for criminal justice reform.[3] Faced with the challenge of how to move civil rights protection out of the jurisdiction of criminal law enforcement, Asian American progressive leaders so far have reached for the modest (and not particularly effective) toolkit borrowed from the office.

In the 1980s the issue of anti-Asian violence drew Asian immigrant engagement in electoral politics. What made Vincent Chin’s murder especially notable was that his killers, two white Chrysler employees, appeared merely to be enacting more brutishly the UAW’s Japan-bashing rhetoric. Serving as an allegory of the “turn from class to race,” the story lent support to the Second Rainbow Coalition’s strategy of interracial coalition as the new frontline of social democratic struggle. Yet for progressives the Vincent Chin story packed its punch as a cautionary tale about a white identitarian working class only because unions were still an electoral factor, their leadership a part of the intended audience to be educated. In the 2020s—with organized labor vastly outweighed by rightwing dark money in campaign financing, the Democratic Party in extremis, and accumulating social discontent that has not yet achieved concentrated force in the form of Left organization—a new pattern of anti-Asian violence has emerged that painfully underscores the ruination of those long-ago rainbow hopes. Remembering that turning from “class” to “race” only makes sense within the context of an intra-Left conversation about desegregating organized labor, we are called by this moment to no longer speak about race—and gender!—without class.

Colleen Lye teaches in English and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent publications are After Marx: Literature, Theory and Value in the Twenty-First Century (edited with Chris Nealon, 2022) and “Asian American Cultural Critique at the End of US Empire” (American Literary History , 2022)

[1] Vilma Kari, sixty-five, suffered a broken pelvis and head injuries from being beaten in an unprovoked attack in midtown Manhattan on 29 March 2021. The case drew particular attention because several workers inside an apartment lobby watched it happen and did not intervene.

[2] The report acknowledges that the data it collected is “just a starting point” for sparking community-level conversations “to reimagine what safety and well-being means beyond law enforcement.”

[3] See, for instance, the San Francisco District Attorney recall of June 2022.

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